Beth here: with my daughter’s permission, I’m sharing a piece she wrote in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. She reflected on what it was like when I “took off the mask” I wore as a result of being sexually abused as a child and expected to maintain a facade of “everything’s fine.”
When Mom Took Off the Mask
by Mandy Fehlbaum
**Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse Recovery**
I remember when I was a kid that my mom would go to therapy appointments. Then she didn’t.
We moved across the country when I was 4 – from Texas to Oregon – then back again. I didn’t know why at the time, other than that my parents wanted to try something new, then got homesick and we came back. We even came back to the same house. We got 2 of the 3 dogs we gave away back.
My mom made another go at therapy my first year at college. My dad had started to go to therapy, he finished, then my mom started to see the same therapist on her own. That was when everything changed.
Junot Díaz writes of a mask in his piece, The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.
When my mom went to therapy, her mask started to crack. And, like Junot writes about, it was very uncomfortable. She feared losing everything. EVERYTHING. I think prying the mask off nearly destroyed her. It very well could have had she not worked with the right therapist. Her previous attempts to take it off when I was a kid were not successful. Her attempt to run away from it was unsuccessful.
For many years – for a little over 18 years of my life – my family lived behind the mask, too. As Junot points out, the mask feels like home. You just get so used to it. My sisters and I were born while my mom wore the mask. We didn’t know about the sexual abuse and how my grandmother excused it. We just saw a very loving grandma and a step-grandfather that was a major asshole sometimes.
I do not at all begrudge my mom for wearing the mask for as long as she did. As Junot writes, “It felt good to be behind the mask. It felt like home.” Who wants to rip off something that is so comforting? Who wants to risk losing everything? My mom thought that my sisters and I would choose my grandparents – especially my grandma – over her. Seriously.
I was going through some things today and I found a project I did back in 2000. In any case, I spoke about family values and how one of the values my parents passed down to me was that of unconditional love. I thought it was a shared family value, but my grandparents’ love had an asterisk. It required that the mask stay on. They’d love us as long as wore the mask and denied its existence. Fuck that.
My family and I – especially my mom – live without the mask. My mom took it off. Threw it away. She had spent years now getting her face accustomed to the feeling of the elements. I am immensely proud of her. She speaks her truth to audiences. She writes books to help others.
Most recently, she has a book coming out with her former therapist: Trauma Recovery – Sessions with Dr. Matt: Narratives of Hope and Resilience for Victims with PTSD.
I didn’t write all this to be a plug for my mom’s book. I wrote it because the part in Junot’s piece about there being comfort in the mask really stood out to me. I get it. But, as Junot points out throughout the piece, the mask is also suffocating.
“Every year, I feel less like the dead, more a part of the living. The intrusions are fewer now, and when they come they don’t throw me completely. I still have those horrible dreams every now and then, and they are still foul as fuck, but at least I have resources to deal with them… I think of all the years and all the life I lost to the hiding and to the fear and to the pain. The mask got more of me than I ever did. But mostly I think about what it felt like to say the words—to my therapist, all those years ago; to tell my partner, my friends, that I’d been raped. And what it feels like to say the words here, where the whole world—and maybe you—might hear.
“Toni Morrison wrote, ‘Anything dead coming back to life hurts.’ In Spanish we say that when a child is born it is given the light. And that’s what it feels like to say the words, X—. Like I’m being given a second chance at the light.”
So, this Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I want to say that if you’re still wearing a mask, that’s okay. You’re not ready yet. But when you are ready, I’ll be here. We’ll be here. And we’re ready to meet you and accept you as you are, in the light.